[This is a journal in five sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
12 January 2016
First half of Part 1 – The Salmon in Ireland
Engaging, bookish, self-conscious, odd. Is that the bedridden young (female) narrator of this family saga? Or is it the middle-aged (male) Niall Williams? I don’t know, and he isn’t telling. There are all sorts of reasons why Ruth Swain might be bookish. Brought up in a preposterous ramshackle house at the far end of an out-of-the-way village in the west of Ireland, all she ever did was read the literally thousands of books her father had accumulated over his lifetime. He didn’t accumulate anything else by the sound of it, and once had to pawn his coat for a volume of Auden’s poems. Not that the story starts with him. It starts with her, briefly, before she slings it back to Wiltshire at the end of the 19th Century when her grandfather was born. I thought Williams must have got the dates wrong, but Grandfather got into fatherhood late – too busy farming, then too busy fishing – and I’m guessing that Father was no quicker off the mark.
Why is Ruth bedridden? We don’t know yet. At she tells us at one point, you can’t expect the Irish ever to come at anything directly – ‘Have you ever seen a straight road in Ireland?’ or something like that – so she keeps details of her ailment from us with thickets of medical euphemisms and the local gossips’ stabs in the dark. ‘Something Amiss, Something Puzzling and We’re Not Sure Yet. I was Fine except for Falling Down. I have been Gone For Tests, Not Coming Right, Terrible Weak, Not Herself, and just A Bit Off.’ But that’s enough of that. The local teacher – Ruth is down from Trinity College in Dublin for as long as it takes, and the suffering, hypochondriac teacher likes to help by visiting, apparently for the good of her own soul – warns her against too many capital letters and her ‘Superabundance of Style.’ As I said, self-conscious. But her endless bookish references are good fun – and, well, maybe any bright young woman in her place might be a bit like this. Maybe.
But what’s it about, exactly? And are all Irish authors obsessed with family, place, families in their place, inherited traits (here it’s the jutting chin), black sheep? At least this one doesn’t have any drinkers – even the village’s three pubs have been closed down since the Bust that followed the Boom – although it does have monomaniacs. That’s the other family trait. With Great-grandfather it was God, and what Ruth calls the Philosophy of Impossible Standards. Every man in the line has lived a life of constant dissatisfaction because whatever they achieve it can never be good enough. She has fun describing how Great-grandfather sets the bar high by calling his only son Abraham and inculcating him with the idea that his life will only properly begin when he receives the Call from God. It never comes. She has more fun describing how he only seems to get anywhere near to God through pole-vaulting. Even an Oxford Classics degree does nothing for him – but then the War comes…
…which Williams has Ruth describe in her usual knowing, flippant style. Grandfather lasts about fourteen minutes, I think it is. He has his wounds tended first by a German soldier who then continues his advance only to killed within moments – wouldn’t you just know it? – and then by a medical orderly whose name we learn. Remember him. Abraham wonders whether this is his Call… but no. He’s so disillusioned by everything he pretends to have no family and, for years, remains in the nursing home… where the orderly’s mother tracks him down and hands over the farm that would have passed to her son had he not, too, been killed after his short life of Christian charity. You couldn’t make it up.
Our man is a Swain, so he’ll turn his attention to the place, deciding it will become a Paradise on Earth. (This idea, like most that Ruth describes in her wry, knowing way, can be tracked through her father’s collection of books. She gives references to the relevant ones he’d acquired while ‘trying to find him,’ a phrase that occurs early in the novel. We’re all looking for something, I suppose she’s telling us, including her.) He succeeds, and is finally ready to write to his father to show him what he’s done. But his father, keenly waiting for the call to a different Paradise entirely – he expects his own death daily, although he isn’t like another character in the novel who puts his funeral suit on every night before going to sleep – is so disturbed by this message from the son he’d thought had been killed in 1914 he dies within a week. Poor Abraham. He decides to all but abandon the farm and take up salmon fishing.
Why am I telling you all this? God knows. I suppose I’m hoping that somewhere there’s a clue as to why Ruth is like she is. You know, massively intelligent, but troubled. Whatever. The man who will be her grandfather carries on fishing for years as the farm sinks into decay. Pages taken from The Salmon of Ireland, a quirky volume I take to be an invention of Williams’, are occasionally inserted into the novel, and the latest extract is all about the sexual mythology surrounding the phallic, thrusting journey of this mysterious creature. Williams has Ruth describe what happens next by way of a different mythology: Abraham’s last ever fishing exploit, in which he catches a monster, is described exactly as though being filmed on a 1939 Hollywood sound stage directed by William Wyler and starring Laurence Olivier. (Ruth isn’t only bookish. Her references to popular culture are so encyclopaedic it makes you wonder how she ever had the time to gather it all between the books she’s read. Unlike Williams, she wasn’t born in 1958.)
A romance has to have a heroine too, Merle Oberon rather than Vivian Leigh who is busy on Gone With The Wind. And that’s who becomes his wife. In fact it’s somebody else, whose own project is to Knock (capital K) him into shape. There’s a lot of Knocking – how we laughed – and soon there’s a son to go with the three daughters they’ve already had. It must be the 1940s by now, and this boy will eventually become Ruth’s father. He will have his own name to live up to, Virgil – and his christening is, according to Abraham as he strides away from the font before the end of the service, to be the last time he’ll ever enter a church.
I could go on, but I’ve got the rest of Part 1 to read yet.
To the end of Part 1
Previously there had been two time-lines: Ruth’s not quite serious accounts of life with her mystery illness in the present, and her (more or less) chronological history of the Swain family. But that won’t do, apparently. This being the book it is, she has to draw attention to the fact that she’s never been writing a straightforward account, and now she introduces another time-line into the mix: her childhood with the brother who has only occasionally been mentioned up to now. Reader – and that’s a form of address she’s been happy to use, complete with references to Jane Eyre – Ruth is a twin. She doesn’t describe their childhood together chronologically, so we already know about their different personalities (and a lot of other things) long before the quirky details of their birth. Or births: Aeney, short for Aeneas, has enough time on his own before Ruth arrives to grieve at their temporary parting. He’s that sort of loving, loveable kid, as Ruth tells us in about ten different ways over the course of this section.
The surface noise of the narrative style that Williams has gone for can become wearing, and so has the convention that nothing and nobody in this narrative is ever ordinary. Every neighbour has his or her own quirk, every teacher that Ruth and her brother (and father) ever encounter is highly particularised, every member of the Swain family – or the families of the women they marry – is in some way obsessive, almost to the point of madness. I’m wondering whether in fact it isn’t merely surface noise, but a smokescreen. Ruth’s illness, diagnosed in the present-day timeline as having a physical cause, has all the signs of a psychosomatic response to some kind of trauma. And the trauma, in the Ruth/Aeney childhood timeline, is still in the future. There are omens, like the separation they suffer at school when they are put into different classes by a Roald Dahl-strength caricature of an evil teacher, and Ruth’s regret that she didn’t go with Aeney when her father offered to introduce them both to salmon-fishing, later followed by the information that her brother ‘fell in love with the river.’
Does Aeney drown? Is that it? Does her illness derive from a terrible sense of guilt? When she makes the penultimate chapter of the section an agonised cry of two lines, what kind of a tease is it? ‘Where are you, Aeney? / You slip away from me as you always did. Where are you?’ Is he literally gone, maybe to sea like his father did? (I’ll get back to Virgil.) Or is he gone in a different way? I seem to remember from earlier in Part 1 that Aeney is around… but maybe he’s suffered some kind of breakdown.
We don’t know yet. But we do know other stuff. We’ve seen Virgil at different stages in his life, both before and after the story of his christening. He’s been the deep-rootedly impractical man who nonetheless does his best to make a big bed for the twins when they need one. He’s the brilliant child, removed from school by a father who isn’t going to let his wife take him over has she has her three daughters. (‘Her’ daughters because genetically they seem to be only hers, just as Virgil seems to be only Abraham’s. It’s like Lady and the Tramp all over again – cue image from the final scene of the Disney film, with those three Lady puppies and one little Tramp – although, unaccountably, Ruth fails to make the link this time.) We meet the sisters, Ruth’s aunts, on a later time-line. Two have applied the Impossible Standard to any suitors, and are drily unmarried and as tightly buttoned-up as characters in Dickens. The other is in a nursing home with nervous trouble of some description. It’s easy to lose track.
Meanwhile Abraham sacks any home tutor who ever refers to the brilliance of his son, but eventually he gets one who teaches him both about the mythology-strewn tradition of Irish history and about the joys of reading. Hence the 3000-odd books piled in the upstairs room where Ruth lies in bed under the rain-washed skylight, numbered in the order Virgil read them in. His education, of course, suits him for no life at all. He never gets to university – not that there’s any talk of such a thing in the house that becomes ever more dilapidated after Abraham’s death. (He dies in the Swains’ usual way, picturesquely, casting a line on the day he sends off the manuscript of The Salmon in Ireland to the publishers.)
The girls have already grown up and left to work in the most conventional ways that Williams can think of, and when the bailiffs come (following an embarrassing and pointless visit by the bank manager) Virgil is deeply immersed in his new obsession. He’s writing, notices nothing of the removal of all the valuable furniture until he trips over a piece of broken mirror-frame, and reacts in no way I can recall when he finds his mother lying unconscious on her bed. She’s had a stroke (cue comments about how one waggish neighbour we’ve heard of before likes to call it a Wallop), and she dies on the way to hospital. That’s when Virgil decides it’s time to go to sea. He takes Moby Dick with him, already well-thumbed, and Ruth offers a paean to well-thumbed Penguin paperbacks and their pages that bulge more every time you re-read them. She’s read the same copy, more than once, of course.
As for the other time-lines…. Aeney is eye-wateringly cute, and Ruth decides they are opposites. (It’s why she doesn’t go fishing that time: if he’s going to be the angler, she isn’t.) He’s athletic, a natural runner and tree-climber – cue stories, as cute as he is, of how this pans out – and… and what? She loves him. But they are still young by the end of Part 1, and meanwhile we’ve had the detail-strewn story of her visit to the consultant in Dublin in the present day. She’s with her usual paramedics, who behave in their usual way (lovely, charming etc.), but the consultation is a disappointment. She gets the results back. Something bad in the blood. But meanwhile there’s a new thing, a love interest in the shape of Vincent. It isn’t such a new thing, in fact, because he’s been ignoring her requests to go away since they were about eight. Now, he regularly visits her in her room in spite of her protests, and is as charmingly full of love as you would expect in a novel like this. It doesn’t look promising, but if he isn’t the love interest why is she telling us about him?
First half of Part 2 – Mythologies
What was I saying? Nothing and nobody in this narrative is ever ordinary, and nor are the ways that future husbands and wives first meet. With the MacCarroll clan – that’s the family that Ruth’s mother comes from – and, as we know, absolutely nothing in Williams’s version of Ireland is more important or interesting than family – you have to go back beyond Adam and Eve to get the full significance of the genealogy. So – and I’m not making this up – Part 2 begins ‘“Back in the time when we were all seaweed”, Tommy Devlin says….’ Which just about sums up the aspects of this book that I’ve been finding tiresome for some time now. But this isn’t about me, it’s about the MacCarroll grandparents, one of whom eventually became the Nan that we first met early in Part 1. (She’s the one who isn’t considered in any way odd in Williams-land, despite her insistence on keeping every copy of the local paper since she was a young woman. I can’t remember just now what her other special attributes are, although she must have some.)
Niall Williams has Ruth proudly remind us of how the MacCarroll genealogy compares with that one in the Dickens novel she cites (Martin Chuzzlewit, Book 180, Penguin Classics). Fine. And after about ten pages we get to the grandparents. They meet – fill in the details yourself – and marry, then move into the house near the river that we recognise from Part 1. Later – and I’m sure stuff happens in the meantime – the woman who will be Nan is left alone with her eighteen-year-old daughter following the death of ‘Spencer Tracy’ at just the moment when Virgil re-enters the story. He hasn’t been gone long – except he has, because he’s now 29 and has suddenly become the mysterious Stranger that the MacCarroll daughter notices as he stares motionless over the river.
It’s Curiosity (capital C) at first sight, then aimless, often silent walks, then… he takes up fishing again. After days of it, long enough for the locals to start joking about his attempts to fish without bait, or without a hook – how they laugh – he catches a salmon. She sees this, from a distance – nothing is intimate about their early non-courtship – and races home before he, as she knows he will, arrives to present it to her and her mother. Then – and I really do need to speed up a bit – it’s marriage and moving in. The mother wonders what he’s going to do there. He can’t farm, can he? (No, he can’t.) Farming, he says, and throws some of the Swain Philosophy at it. Cue descriptions of rain-soaked days of undirected, thankless hard work which, being a Swain, he welcomes smilingly as a worthy challenge. What he doesn’t yet know, Ruth tells us, is that he’s a poet. And that’s about as far as I’ve got with that time-line.
Meanwhile, in the present, Vincent is still around. Ruth is definitely not getting any better, and she asks him whether her face looks grey to him. No, he says, until she forces him to admit that it does. And that her hair is like straw. Inauspicious, you might think. Being Ruth, she tells you that this is what you might think. But… he tells her he is going to wash her hair. She protests, sort of, while also giving a thumbnail history of how her father used a Reader’s Digest book of home improvements in order to install central heating and (sluggishly) running water. But she lets Vincent run the water over her head, and it becomes a not-quite erotic moment – everything’s not-quite in this universe –of sheer abandonment.
‘I closed my eyes and felt Vincent’s hands and the water and the flowing and the kind of impossible sensation of freeing and pouring and cleansing, as if this was a baptism, simple and pure and fluent in grace, as if there were grounds for hope yet.’
That’s how one chapter ends – but the next chapter set in the present has her in the ambulance again, with the paramedics again, racing to be told by the consultant that this time she’s going to get some treatment. There may be side effects, but this time ‘we’ll start to turn back the tide on this thing.’ Hah. He doesn’t know what the Swains know about tides and other forces of nature, not that Ruth writes such a thing at this point. I’m guessing that she doesn’t need to.
To the end of Part 2
Ah. Late on, there’s a chapter describing the visits paid by ‘the whole parish’ (and she really does seem to list every single parishioner, quirk by fascinating quirk) as Ruth lies, if we are to believe her, close to death. It’s followed by the one in which, as I’d speculated, Aeney is drowned on their last day of primary school. Not that his body is found – or, this being the novel it is, is ever likely to be. ‘Where are you, Aeney?’ from the end of Part 1 suggests not.
In other words, things carry on pretty much as before. This novel is written as hyperbole – or, to use what has now become the cliché that Ruth is able to refer to when describing some neighbour early in Part 1, the dial is always turned up to eleven. We’ve had the extraordinariness of Ruth’s parents’ families, courtship and wedding. Now we get page after page of the twins’ long-delayed arrival in the world, the sheer wondrousness of their birth, and… guess. From their father’s response to his new-born children you would, literally, think that nobody had ever been a father before. Fine, he can be like that if he wants to. But come on.
What does he do? He wanders out to his favourite spot by the river and… learns to be a poet. There and then, this undiscovered part of himself finally appears, in the form of mumbled rhythms that become half-formed words… which the priest, worried about the infants’ immortal souls and seeking Virgil out to make arrangements for the baptisms, mistakes for prayers. Hah. When, being bitten half to death by midges – how we laughed – he finally gets round to mentioning his idea, Virgil scoops up a bucketful of river and strides towards the house. No, no, says the priest, far too late. By the time he reaches the house the scene is set for the most unusual baptism in the history of… etc. Later, we get Ruth’s fond memories of sitting in her father’s lap as he uses his mumbling technique to extrude more poems. She is always unable to sleep – Aeney is the one who is away with the fairies as soon as his head touches whatever they use for pillows in Swain-land – and she treasures these moments before her father takes out his notebook pencil, and writes. (Cue, of course, a long list of how other poets write, and with what.)
(Sigh.) We’ve had an impression before this of their twin-track childhoods. Now there’s a super-cute dog which, as is ‘always’ the way, latches itself to the boy. There are Ruth’s classmates who are worse than any other bitchy little girls anywhere else, ever – in the present, one of them is honing her dictatorial skills by training to be a teacher, and we know what Ruth thinks of most teachers – and how they never believe that her father is really a writer. I know what they mean. We’ve never seen any evidence either.
Meanwhile there are the things that girls do and the things that boys do. Ruth loves to make confident generalisations, to the extent that I began to make a note of them. ‘It is different for boys. Boys are born masters of the universe, until a bigger master knocks them down.’ When Dad is going for a swim in the sea, ‘Mam and I are standing, the way girls always are, watching, holding the clothes.’ ‘Each family functions their own way, by rules reinvented daily.’ And then it gets deep. ‘The thing is, writing is a sickness only cured by writing. That’s the impossible part.’
I think I might be answering a question I’ve been asking myself about this novel for some time now. How much distance is there between Niall Williams and Ruth Swain? This is his novel, but it is unmistakeably her voice, and it is full of need. She is constantly seeking confirmation of – of what? Of her own identity? Worth? Cleverness? There’s evidence for all of that in the restless, self-conscious stream of her narrative (cue river analogies, no doubt helpfully cross-referenced), and you can see why she has a need for nearly half of the book to come under the subtitle Mythologies. What she’s telling us, and what Williams (I think) is trying to make sure we understand, is that she is creating something she can believe in. In spite of all the knowing nods and winks, her ancestors really were as extraordinary as she is telling us, her father as wonderful, her brother that ‘golden boy’ who disappeared into the river. And I almost forgot to mention her insistence that she was, and is, ‘adored’. In the Swain family, love is always – always – unconditional.
And there’s the reading thing. Ruth, she tells us – she tells us so bloody much in this book – is a reader, not a writer. That’s what separated her from her classmates, and it’s all she has. So she mythologises reading through the father who haunted every bookshop from one named town to another somewhere else. He was the one who always had torn pockets from the books he carried in them, he was the one who…. He was the one who turned it into something else. He was able – wasn’t he? – to transform the knowledge he didn’t get from any university – she’s explicit about that – into something new and strange. Maybe.
The writing and the love. There’s a little scene in which, once her father has begun his nightly vigil of ‘stabbing a pen into his heart’, she asks him if the writing is good. His reply? ‘Have I ever told you that you are the most wonderful girl in the world?’ She nods, but that isn’t good enough for him. He goads her into saying it. ‘Do you know what you are? The most…’ And we get this from our narrator: ‘I had to finish his sentence. Otherwise he would keep at it. And although even then I feared those critics creeping behind the wainscoting or under the linoleum who would consider me a Sentimental and Exaggerated Character, I will admit that I did say: “…wonderful girl in the world.” / Go on, shoot me.’
I don’t know what game on earth Niall Williams is playing, and I’m not sure how much I care by now. At the point I’ve reached there’s only Part 3 to go, and it’s short. Has Ruth been able to create a viable mythology for herself, based on the reading, the conversation, the local folklore that she’s been able to ingest? And will I be able to forgive Niall Williams for subjecting me to all this stuff, presented at this (deliberately) ludicrous pitch of self-conscious intensity?
I have my doubts.
To the end – Part 3, History of the Rain
No, I won’t. Forgive Niall Williams. For 300 pages before this, he’s been throwing every last thing into the mix, and after another fifty I was simply bored. It isn’t any excuse that this is written in Ruth’s voice, because – and I’m finally answering that question – he doesn’t get any distance from it. He allows her to write like this, but she isn’t the only one wallowing in the sentimentality, the outrageous plot-twists and, let’s face it, the amateurish characterisation. He’s right there with her. Everybody is a cliché-ridden caricature, and I don’t care that Dad dies – brain tumour, in case the reader might feel it was just too implausible – and that Ruth apparently doesn’t. It’s all plot, like the rest of it.
(There was one moment when I thought that Williams, for the first time ever, was going to do something to surprise us. Ruth is writing about poor old Vincent, as faithful as ever and willing to brave a four-hour bus journey in rain-soaked sneakers to see her in hospital. ‘Vincent,’ she tells us, ‘is unreal.’ Halleluiah, I thought, now we’re going to find out that it wasn’t Niall Williams, professional writer, who has made up all this nonsense. It’s rookie novelist Ruth. Hah. All she’s doing is reiterating, through her usual hyperbole, how extraordinary Vincent is. He’s as real, so we are to understand, as all of them.)
Briefly, then. Following Aeney’s disappearance Virgil stops writing. Mam decides she’s had enough of him and throws him out. If only. What she really does is resort to a clever subterfuge. She gets Mrs Quinty, the hypochondriac teacher who has been Ruth’s mentor throughout, to type the poems that Mam has been able to find in the notebooks. They give it a title – History of the Rain, obviously – then take the whole package to be posted to a publisher in London. She doesn’t mean to, but Mam mentions that it’s ‘poetry’ she’s sending, and the postmistress mentions it to somebody else…. Soon it’s common knowledge – that is, everybody knows except Virgil – that that there’s a poet in their midst. On the back of his new reputation he is able to give some classes in the first thing that came into his head when asked, Yeats. Don’t you love Irish villages? They adore their creatives without making a big thing of it.
Virgil is re-energised by Yeats, through that process of osmosis which, in this book, always suffices instead of real engagement with whatever is read. (Later, there’s a paean of praise to this process. I’ll come back to that.) He gets a creative surge that goes far beyond his previous tortured way of working and, for the first time in his life, it flows. Fast-forward a few weeks, as Mam and Ruth wait for a reply that never comes. Mam writes to the publisher, the rain comes down harder than ever, the river starts to rise… and Ruth is woken by the smell of smoke. The house is on fire, and they all get out. Ruth and Mam go to stay with neighbours, Virgil sorts out the house as best he can as the floods continue to rise… and he seems to have decided that the fire was a sign. When Ruth goes back to find the house empty she looks for him. He’s just cast every last one of his poems on to the waters. And – you will have guessed as soon as you realised that Mrs Quinty was making no copies – the publisher replies that no poems were ever received. Nobody, including Ruth, including Mrs Quinty – too busy typing to take in the sense – has ever actually read them. Nobody ever will.
Are we nearly there yet? Dad dies, Ruth goes into hospital expecting to, and makes Vincent promise that the book she’s been writing (this one) will be cast into the river when she does. But she doesn’t, so here it is. And Vincent, following the promise she made when she thought it wouldn’t happen, gets his kiss. The end…
…nearly. We get that hymn of praise to reading. How does it go? ‘My book has in it all the books my father read, and in that way his spirit survives, as mine does, because although impossible there is a communion between writers and readers, and…’ and so on, and on – until it segues into wishful thinking. Knowingly (yawn) Ruth writes about the way readers like and expect happy endings, so that’s what we get. It’s ‘impossible’ for a non-believer like her to credit it, but there’s Dad, in Heaven, meeting Aeney again and holding him in his arms. And – what? ‘I Ruth Swain will know that love is real and forgiveness complete because, at last, unimaginably, implausibly, impossibly, the rain will have stopped.’
This is the last sentence, and you can believe it if you want to.